Raw verse Cooked Tomatoes – The Lycopene Debate

Let me start by discussing one of my favorite forms of the tomato, the paste. I probably go through close to two cans of tomato paste every week. I like the texture and combination with certain foods. I also love that it is a product you can buy for cheap, store for months (even years), and turn into a sauce or soup. A multipurpose, multifaceted fruit I must say. I mostly treat it like a condiment, using it as a topping or dipping sauce with various foods. It’s the way way way better version of ketchup – tastes better and is better for you.

If we take a look at the standard nutrition facts, every 2 tablespoons has 30 calories, 0 fat, 0 cholesterol, 20mg sodium (make sure there is no salt added), 7g of carbs, 1g fiber, 4g sugar, 1g protein, 10% Vitamin A, 10% Vitamin C, 2% Calcium and 4% Iron. Not too shabby. Oh and here’s the best part, there is only one ingredient – tomatoes! A win win for me. Stellar nutrition and simple ingredients. I mean it’s no meal replacement, but it is a great dish addition.

I wasn’t always a t-paste connoisseur. It all started in undergrad (around 2008). I used to eat a more normal amount, about 2-4 tablespoons a week, maybe less some weeks, maybe more others. Over the next few years I definitely upped my intake. I think it was some time in 2010 when I started eating t-paste by the can. At that point I began to question my consumption. Maybe it was time to cut back on my obsession before I became a full-blown addict, or maybe I already was. Regardless, I felt it was time to slow my roll. My family wasn’t as concerned as I was, but they too felt it wouldn’t hurt to dial down.

A few months later I was watching an episode of Dr. Oz, and he spoke of the health benefits of tomatoes, and tomato paste in particular. He recommended eating 4 tablespoons a day. Pause, rewind, replay (thank you DVR). “MOOOOM! Come here, listen to this please.”

Looks like I was good to go. After all that worrying, I may have been doing something beneficial for my body. I learned that cooked tomatoes have a higher amount of lycopene, which is particularly important in the prevention of prostate cancer. Not that prostate cancer was a concern for me, but I figured it had to be pretty darn healthy if it could reduce the risk of such a cancer. So, I went back to my old t-paste ways.

Why my sudden interest in telling this story?

Well, recently I was listening to a talk by raw food guru David Wolfe, and he commented on raw verse cooked tomatoes, saying:

“We often hear that cooking tomatoes increases the available lycopene antioxidant content by five times. Blending tomatoes also increases the available lycopene antioxidant content. Blending however avoids the heat/oxidation, as well as water and enzyme damaging properties of cooking.”

Then, 1 week later I listened to a lecture by Dr. Fuhrman where he spoke to the benefits of eating cooked tomatoes (versus raw), especially when it comes to lycopene content.

Hmmm, so which is truly better? Or are they both good? I set out to find the answer.

After investigating for a bit, I found there are health benefits to both. Research has consistently shown that cooked tomatoes do indeed have more lycopene content, but blending increases the lycopene content as well (just not as much as cooking). However, while cooking may have more lycopene, valuable nutrients are also lost during the heating process (i.e., Vitamin C, B1 and B6). So, there’s a tradeoff. It seems you have two options with respect to the tomato. (1) You can eat more raw tomatoes (blended or whole) or (2) you can eat cooked tomatoes and make sure you get Vitamin C, B1, and B6 from other foods in your diet.

I would recommend consuming the food in both forms, raw or cooked, and determining what form you like. Perhaps one tastes better, or your body may find it easier to digest tomatoes in cooked versus raw form. Unless you have specific reasons to monitor your tomato format intake go with whatever delights you and your belly 🙂

And for those of you who don’t care much for tomatoes all together, there are other lycopene rich foods, which include: Watermelon, Grapefruit, Guava, Papaya, Apricot, Asparagus, Cabbage (red raw), Parsley, Sweet Red Peppers (cooked), Asparagus (cooked), Beans (baked), Mango, and Carrots.

For amounts per serving for some of these foods check out this chart. Amounts are given in micrograms, so just move the decimal place over from right to left three times to convert to mg. Tomatoes definitely have the highest lycopene content, particularly tomato paste (75.3mg per cup), but if you are eating a variety of fruits and vegetables daily, you should have no lycopene shortage issues.

So, you may be wondering what lycopene even is and why you should care about it.

Lycopene is a phytochemical belonging to the carotenoids family. Lycopene gives tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables their red/pinkish color, with the exception of cherries and strawberries. Like all carotenoids, it is an antioxidant, but lycopene is 2-3 times more potent than beta-carotene (the phytochemical that gives carrots their orange color) and is of particular interest to the scientific community due to its anti-carcinogenic effects.

Interestingly, it is not considered an essential nutrient for humans, but it is a highly beneficial and powerful antioxidant that demolishes free radicals in the body. What do these free radicals do? They protect your body’s cells from damage, including the DNA inside the cell. The DNA inside the cell is what causes healthy cells to turn cancerous and create subsequent health problems.

Preliminary research shows lycopene may help to prevent heart disease, stroke, cancers of prostate, stomach, lungs and breast, atherosclerosis, osteoporosis, and eye disorders such as macular degeneration and cataracts. If that wasn’t enough, it may also be the most powerful carotenoid against singlet oxygen, a primary cause of premature skin aging. Further, research has suggested that lycopene may boost sperm concentrations in men with infertility. Now that’s quite an impressive resume if I do say so myself.

Although there is no Daily Value for lycopene, health specialists recommend including about 10mg of supplemental mixed carotenoids daily for health maintenance. Dosages used for prostate cancer go up to 30mg daily. At times supplements are necessary, but when possible I ALWAYS advocate eating your nutrients. Lycopene is fat soluble, so try to eat it with a small amount of oil or other good fats for optimal absorption.

As you can see there are plenty of options to choose from. Have fun with your lycopene intake. Mix it up. Although I love my tomato paste, I’m going to incorporate some other sources and tomato formats too.

I leave you with this interesting take on lycopene and raw tomatoes:

“Did nature make a mistake by only offering ‘x’ mg of lycopene in a raw tomato when its cooked counterpart has twice that? Or could it be that we really only need ‘x’ mg of lycopene per tomato? “

Oh and one more thing…sorry I know this is a long post! Here’s a classic Gazpacho recipe. I love gazpacho, and it’s a super easy, fast, delicious, cooling, raw, blended (i.e., more lycopene) way to incorporate tomatoes into your next meal.

And I’m out,
Peace sign
Ida

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